What is Truth?
A Sermon by Brent Eelman
Eagles Mere Presbyterian Church
August 27, 2017
(Author’s Note: This homily is punctuated for delivery, paying attention to how I wanted to phrase, as opposed to obeying strict punctuation and formatting rules.)
Then Pilate entered the headquarters* again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ 34Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ 35Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ 36Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ 37Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ 38Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’
Last month, I was seated in the large amphitheater in Chautauqua, New York, with 4,000 other people for “An Evening with Garrison Keillor”. It promised to be a joyous evening of songs and stories about the fabled “Lake Woebegone.” When it came time for the 20-minute intermission, Keillor eschewed the break and literally came down among the audience and led an a cappella hymn sing. One of the hymns we sang was “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” As we sang the chorus, “Glory hallelujah! His truth is marching on.” I was struck by the word truth, “His truth.”
The news that day had the usual accusations and counter accusations about “fake news” and lies. The recent Time Magazine cover emblazoned with the words “Is Truth Dead?” coursed through my thoughts. Television interviewees referring to “alternative facts” and others claiming, “I don’t know what to believe these days,” came to mind. I recalled the Oxford English Dictionary declaring that the 2016 “word of the year” is post truth, which they defined as an adjective: “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” There was a strange irony in the moment as we sang the words: “Glory hallelujah! His truth is marching on.”
The Gospel of John declared that Jesus, the Christ, is the Word, (the rationalizing principle of the universe and the ground of all being).
This “Word become flesh and lived among us, and we have seen glory, the glory as of a father’s son, full of grace and truth.”
In the 8th chapter of John, Jesus declared,
“You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”
In the 14th chapter, Jesus continued this theme when he stated,
I am the way, the truth, and the life.
John’s gospel reached an ironic climax when this humble Middle-Eastern peasant, stood before Pontius Pilate, and was asked, “What is truth?” Pilate was the Roman governor. He represented the most powerful empire of the day. But in that moment the gospel exposed the pathos of power. Expedience, fueled by fear, ruled in Pilate’s mind. His question, whether direct or rhetorical, displayed the “whataboutism” of the political propagandist, and consequently he washed his hands of the whole matter. There were other things that were more important.
“What is truth?” When we ask that question today, we ask it on a number of different planes. We ask it in terms of fact vs falsehood. The concern is scientific truth, historic truth, and logical truth. Christians need to be concerned about this type of truth. It is why churches and denominations established colleges and universities. These founders of the great schools of our nation, Harvard, Yale, Bucknell, Lafayette, and all those small colleges and universities that dot our commonwealth, believed that teaching the truth about the world we live in (science) is not at odds with a belief in the creator. To the contrary, they believed that science, when pursued with integrity reflected the glory of creation and revealed more about the genius of the one who created it. As Christians we need to be passionate for academic and scientific truth.
But there is an additional dimension of truth to which the Battle Hymn of the Republic refers.
· It is the truth that deals with what it means to be a human being created in the image of God.
· It is the truth the goes to the heart of who we are and what we are called as human beings to be and do.
· It is the truth about how we relate to other human beings and how we treat them.
· It is the truth we struggle with, just as Jacob struggled with the mysterious stranger by the River Jabbock.
This truth wrestles with the questions:
· “What does it mean to do good?”
· “Who is Jesus Christ for us today and how do we follow him?
· “What is my calling, my purpose, in the face evil?”
This was the dimension of truth we sang about when we intoned the words:
“Glory Hallelujah! His truth is marching on.”
Julia Ward Howe, the author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, was a reformer, an advocate for the rights of women, and a strong supporter of the abolition of slavery. She was wealthy and enjoyed the company of many of the movers and shakers in New York and New England. While visiting D.C. and President Lincoln in 1961, she heard the Union solders singing the popular abolitionist song, “John Brown’s Body…” and was challenged by a friend to write new lyrics for the tune; lyrics that might be a more fitting song to sing while marching into battle.
The story goes that she couldn’t sleep that night, and scratched out the lyrics on a page next to her bed. When she awoke the next morning, she had forgotten her poetic attempt, but the words were there: Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord….
To a nation divided over the question of slavery, whether it was right, in the words of Lincoln, to wring “their bread from the sweat of other men's faces,” she raised the question of that horrible civil war to a sacred cause: “as Christ died to make us holy, let us die to make men free…. His truth is marching on.”
Her poem was replete with biblical references. Humanity, they declared, would be judged on the moral issue of the day: Slavery. God’ s truth would judge the hearts of women and men: “He is sifting out the hearts of men before the judgment seat.” Her words then became a challenge to respond: “O be swift my soul to answer…”
In the third verse, she captured the hope of Christian faith, attributing to Christ, “a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me.” Christ came to change the human story. He came to change, to transfigure us. Human nature is not a reference to our baser proclivities and our tendency toward evil.. It is the “better angels of our nature.” Then she concluded, that just as Christ’s life was fulfilled upon the cross, ours can be fulfilled in living for the freedom, the hope, and the diginity of all people..”As he died to make us holy, let us die to make men free. His truth is marching on.”
What is truth? There are moments in history and also moments in our individual lives when we confronted with decisions.
· They are decisions about truth and lies, but more.
· They are decisions about who we are.
· They are decisions about what path we will take in life.
· They are decisions about right and wrong.
There is no room for cowardly equivocating. “Kicking the can down the road” is not an option. To human beings, and to nations, there are moments when we are faced with the decision of who we are, what side of history we are on, and whether we will leave our children and our children’s children a legacy of truth or one of lies. If we wish to reclaim any moral authority as Christians, we need to exhibit moral courage in the face of evil.
This is a moment of such a decision. Our nation, that we know and love, is still bitterly divided over an issue that has plagued us since our founding: slavery and its progeny, racism.
· We do not live in a post-racial age.
· We cannot claim that we do not see color.
· Racism still divides us.
· It divides our neighborhoods, our schools, and our churches.
The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., once said "it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o'clock on Sunday morning."
It is telling that the so called “culture war” is now centered on statues and monuments of individuals who went to war:
· not for our nation, but to divide it;
· not for the dignity of humanity, but to enslave part of it;
This racism is now combined with anti-Semitic neo-Nazism. We can say it is a “small group” but last week, the Gallup organization, in a nationwide poll, found that 9% of Americans believe that it is acceptable to hold a neo-Nazi or white supremacist view. That is 22 million people! Closer to home, the Southern Poverty Law Center documented that there are 40 active hate groups operating in Pennsylvania.
We can dress up racism and hate in white polos and khakis; we can couch it in the rhetoric of history and heritage, but it is still an ugly, vile, destructive force for evil. The events of the last few weeks have revealed that racism and Nazism are real and need to be confronted while it is still a small population. This is not something that goes away if we ignore it. It festers and multiplies in ignorance and discontent.
We need to confront and oppose the forces that are radicalizing our youth into these movements. One hundred and fifty years ago, our nation said “no” to slavery and splitting this nation. My Great Grandfather, John Dunnewold, fought in the Civil War and was imprisoned in the Confederate Libby Prison. He was one of the lucky few to survive that death camp.
My parent’s generation said “no” to National Socialism and its idolatrous cross, the Swastika. We need to remember the heroes of that generation who made the decision for the truth in face of evil. Five years ago, I was at the holocaust memorial in Israel; Yad Vashem. On the “Avenue of the Righteous,” I got to see the plaque in honor of aunt, (my father’s sister, Antje), who hid 9 Jews in the walls of her home and saved them from the Holocaust, while running a hotel in the Netherlands. She fell under suspicion and a gestapo commandant held a pistol to her head and threatened her, saying she would be shot in the morning.
“Well you may as well shoot me now and have it over with,” She told the officers. “I don't want to spend the whole night worrying about my death.” She courageously called his bluff, and survived.
When interviewed after the war she said: “It was something anybody would do…” Would we? I truly admire my aunt’s witness, and have always prayed that I would be able to summon the moral courage that she exhibited.
“Once to every man and nation, comes a moment to decide.”
This is a moment to decide.
Last week, Mitt Romney echoed these words when he wrote, “This is… a moment that will define America in the hearts of our children.”
Can we summon the moral courage to come out of the shadows and allow the bright light of truth to shine, so that our children can see it.
Can we find the moral courage to say “No!” to the living lie of hate that is being fomented in our nation?
His truth is marching on…. Let us march in the truth! Amen.